T H E   C A L I B A N   A N D   T H E    W I T C H

by   S i l v i a    F e d e r i c i



"What has not been recognized is that the witch-hunt was one of the most important events in the development of capitalist society and the formation of the modern proletariat."


"In this "century of geniuses” — Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Shakespeare, Pascal, Descartes — a century that saw the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, and the development of philosophical and scientific rationalism, witchcraft became one of the favorite subjects of debate for the European intellectual elites. Judges, lawyers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, theologians all became preoccupied with the "problem,” wrote pamphlets and demonologies, agreed that this was the most nefarious crime, and called for its punishment."


The Great Witch-Hunt in Europe

Quote from Silivia Federici´s: Caliban and the Witch


"Une bete imparfaicte, sans foy, sans crainte, sans costance.
(French 17th century saying about women)


Down from the waiste they are Centaurs,


Though Women all above,

But to the girdle do the gods inherit,

Beneath is all the fiends;

There is hell, there is darkness,

There is the sulphurous pit,

Burning, scalding, stench, consumption.

(Shakespeare, King Lear)


You are the true Hyenas, that allure us with the fairness of your skins and when folly has brought us within your reach, you leap upon us. You are the traitors of Wisdom, the impediment to Industry... the clogs to Virtue and the goads that drive us to all vices, impiety and ruin.You are the Fool’s Paradise, the wiseman’s Plague and the Grand Error of Nature

(Walter Charleton, Ephesian Matron, 1659).

Jan Luyken. The execution of Anne Hendricks for witchcraft in Amsterdam in 1571.





The witch-hunt rarely appears in the history of the proletariat.To this day, it remains one of the most understudied phenomena in European history1 or, rather, world history, if we consider that the charge of devil worshiping was carried by missionaries and conquistadors to the "New World” as a tool for the subjugation of the local populations.

That the victims, in Europe, were mostly peasant women may account for the historians’ past indifference towards this genocide, an indifference that has bordered on complicity, since the elimination of the witches from the pages of history has contributed to trivializing their physical elimination at the stake, suggesting that it was a phenomenon of minor significance, if not a matter of folklore.

Even those who have studied the witch-hunt (in the past almost exclusively men) were often worthy heirs of the 16th-century demonologists. While deploring the extermination of the witches, many have insisted on portraying them as wretched fools, afflicted by hallucinations, so that their persecution could be explained as a process of "social therapy,” serving to reinforce neighborly cohesion (Midelfort 1972:3) or could be described in medical terms as a "panic,” a "craze,” an "epidemic,” all characterizations that exculpate the watch hunters and depoliticize their crimes.

Examples of the misogyny that has inspired the scholarly approach to the watch-hunt abound. As Mary Daly pointed out as late as 1978, much of the literature on this topic has been written from "a woman-executing viewpoint” that discredits the victims of the persecution by portraying them as social failures (women "dishonored” or frustrated in love), or even as perverts who enjoyed teasing their male inquisitors with their sexual fantasies. Daly cites the example of E G. Alexander’s and S.T. Selesnick’s The History of Psychiatry where we read that:

...accused watches oftentimes played into the hands of the persecutors. A witch relieved her guilt by confessing her sexual fantasies in open court; at the same time, she achieved some erotic gratification by dwelling on all the details before her male accusers.These severely emotionally disturbed women were particularly susceptible to the suggestion that they harbored demon and devils and would confess to cohabiting with evil spirits, much as disturbed individuals today, influenced by newspaper headlines, fantasy themselves as sought-after murderers (Daly 1978:213).

There have been exceptions to this tendency to blame the victims, both among the first and second generation of witch-hunt scholars. Among the latter we should remember Alan Macfarlane (1970), E.W. Monter (1969,1976,1977), and Alfred Soman (1992). But it was only in the wake of the feminist movement that the witch-hunt emerged from the underground to which it had been confined, thanks to the feminists’ identification with the watches, who were soon adopted as a symbol of female revolt (Bovenschen 1978:83ff).2 Feminists were quick to recognize that hundreds of thousands of women could not have been massacred and subjected to the crudest tortures unless they posed a challenge to the power structure. They also realized that such a war against women, carried out over a period of at least two centuries, was a turning point in the history of women in Europe, the "original sin” in the process of social degradation that women suffered with the advent of capitalism, and a phenomenon, therefore, to which we must continually return if we are to understand the misogyny that still characterizes institutional practice and male-female relations.

Marxist historians, by contrast, even when studying the "transition to capitalism,” with very few exceptions, have consigned the witch-hunt to oblivion, as if it were irrelevant to the history of the class struggle. Yet, the dimensions of the massacre should have raised some suspicions, as hundreds of thousands of women were burned, hanged, and tortured in less than two centuries.3 It should also have seemed significant that the witch-hunt occurred simultaneously with the colonization and extermination of the populations of the New World, the English enclosures, the beginning of the slave trade, the enactment of "bloody laws” against vagabonds and beggars, and it climaxed in that interregnum between the end of feudalism and the capitalist "take off” when the peasantry in Europe reached the peak of its power but, in time, also consummated its historic defeat. So far, however, this aspect of primitive accumulation has truly remained a secret.4



Witch-burning times and the State Initiative
What has not been recognized is that the witch-hunt was one of the most important events in the development of capitalist society and the formation of the modern proletariat. For the unleashing of a campaign of terror against women, unmatched by any other persecution, weakened the resistance of the European peasantry to the assault launched against it by the gentry and the state, at a time when the peasant community was already disintegrating under the combined impact of land privatization, increased taxation, and the extension of state control over every aspect of social life. The witch-hunt deepened the divisions between women and men, teaching men to fear the power of women, and destroyed a universe of practices, beliefs, and social subjects whose existence was incompatible with the capitalist work discipline, thus redefining the main elements of social reproduction. In this sense, like the contemporary attack on "popular culture,” and the "Great Confinement” of paupers and vagabonds in work-houses and correction houses, the witch-hunt was an essential aspect of primitive accumulation and the "transition” to capitalism.

Later, we will see what fears the witch-hunt dispelled for the European ruling class and what were its effects for the position of women in Europe. Here I want to stress that, contrary to the view propagated by the Enlightenment, the witch-hunt was not the last spark of a dying feudal world. It is well established that the "superstitious” Middle Ages did not persecute any witches; the very concept of "witchcraft” did not take shape until the late Middle Ages, and never, in the "Dark Ages,” were there mass trials and executions, despite the fact that magic permeated daily life and, since the late Roman Empire, it had been feared by the ruling class as a tool of insubordination among the slaves.5

In the 7th and 8th centuries, the crime of maleficium was introduced in the codes of the new Teutonic kingdoms, as it had been in the Roman code. This was the time of the Arab conquest that, apparently, inflamed the hearts of the slaves in Europe with the prospect of freedom, inspiring them to take arms against their owners.6 Thus, this legal innovation may have been a reaction to the fear generated among the elites by the advance of the "Saracens” who were, reputedly, great experts in the magical arts (Chejne 1983: 115—32). But, at this time, under the name of maleficium, only magical practices were punished that inflicted damage to persons and things, and the church criticized those who believed in magical deeds.7



The situation changed by the mid 15th century. It was in this age of popular revolts, epidemics, and incipient feudal crisis that we have the first witch trials (in Southern France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy), the first descriptions of the Sabbat,8 and the development of the doctrine of witchcraft, by which sorcery was declared a form of heresy and the highest crime against God, Nature, and the State (Monter 1976:11-17). Between 1435 and 1487, twenty-eight treatises on witchcraft were written (Monter 1976:19) culminating, on the eve of Columbus’ voyage, with the publication in 1486 of the infamous Malleus Malejicarum (The Hammer of Witches) that, following a new papal Bull on the subject, Innocent VIII’s Summis Desiderantes (1484), indicated that the Church considered witchcraft a new threat. However, the intellectual climate that prevailed during the Renaissance, especially in Italy, was still characterized by skepticism towards anything relating to the supernatural. Italian intellectuals, from Ludovico Ariosto, to Giordano Bruno, and Nicolo Machiavelli looked with irony at the clerical tales concerning the deeds of the devil, stressing, by contrast (especially in the case of Bruno), the nefarious power of gold and money. "Non incanti ma contanti” ("not charms but coins”) is the motto of a character in one of Bruno’s comedies, summing up the perspective of the intellectual elite and the aristocratic circles of the time (Parinetto 1998:29—99).

It was after the mid-16th century, in the very decades in which the Spanish conquistadors were subjugating the American populations, that the number of women tried as witches escalated, and the initiative for the persecution passed from the Inquisition to the secular courts (Monter 1976:26). Witch-hunting reached its peak between 1580 and 1630, in a period, that is, when feudal relations were already giving way to the economic and political institutions typical of mercantile capitalism. It was in this long "Iron Century” that, almost by a tacit agreement, in countries often at war against each other, the stakes multiplied and the state started denouncing the existence of witches and taking the initiative of the persecution.

It was the Carolina — the Imperial legal code enacted by the Catholic Charles V in 1532 — that established that witchcraft be punished by death. In Protestant England, the persecution was legalized by three Acts of Parliament passed in 1542,1563 and 1604, this last introducing the death penalty even in the absence of any damage inflicted upon persons and things. After 1550, laws and ordinances making witchcraft a capital crime and inciting the population to denounce suspected witches, were also passed in Scotland, Switzerland, France, and the Spanish Netherlands. These were re-issued in subsequent years to expand the number of those who could be executed and, again, make witchcraft as such, rather than the damages presumably provoked by it, the major crime.

The mechanisms of the persecution confirm that the witch-hunt was not a spontaneous process, "a movement from below to which the ruling and administrative classes were obliged to respond”(Lamer 1983:1). As Christina Lamer has shown in the case of Scotland, a witch-hunt required much official organization and administration.9 Before neighbor accused neighbor, or entire communities were seized by a "panic,” a steady indoctrination took place, with the authorities publicly expressing anxiety about the spreading of witches, and traveling from village to village in order to teach people how to recognize them, in some cases carrying with them lists with the names of suspected witches and threatening to punish those who hid them or came to their assistance (Lamer 1983:2).


Skannad 9

In Scotland, with the Synod of Aberdeen (1603), the ministers of the Presbyterian Church were ordered to ask their parishioners, under oath, if they suspected anyone of being a witch. Boxes were placed in the churches to allow the informers to remain anonymous; then, after a woman had fallen under suspicion, the minister exhorted the faithful from the pulpit to testify against her and forbid anyone to give her help (Black 1971:13).

Witches Sabbath. This was the first and most famous of a series of engravings the German artists Hans Baldung produced, starting in 1510, pronographically exploiting the female body under the guise of denunciation.

In the other countries too, denunciations were solicited. In Germany, this was the task of the "visitors” appointed by the Lutheran Church with the consent of the German princes (Strauss 1975: 54). In Northern Italy, it was the ministers and the authorities who fueled suspicions, and made sure that they would result in denunciations; they also made sure that the accused would be totally isolated, forcing them, among other things, to carry signs on their dresses so that people would keep away from them (Mazzali 1988:112).

The witch-hunt was also the first persecution in Europe that made use
of a multi-media propaganda to generate a mass psychosis among the population. Alerting the public to the dangers posed by the witches, through pamphlets publicizing the most famous trials and the details of their atrocious deeds, was one of the first tasks of the printing press (Mandrou 1968:136). Artists were recruited to the task, among them the German Hans Baldung, to whom we owe the most damning portraits of witches. But it was the jurists, the magistrates, and the demonologists, often embodied by the same person, who most contributed to the persecution. They were the ones who systematized the arguments, answered the critics and perfected a legal machine that, by the end of the 16th century, gave a standardized, almost bureaucratic format to the trials, accounting for the similarities of the confessions across national boundaries. In their work, the men of the law could count on the cooperation of the most reputed intellectuals of the time, including philosophers and scientists who are still praised as the fathers of modern rationalism. Among them was the English political theorist Thomas Hobbes, who despite his skepticism concerning the reality of witchcraft, approved the persecution as a means of social control. A fierce enemy of witches — obsessive in his hatred for them and in his calls for bloodshed — was Jean Bodin, the famous French lawyer and political theorist, whom historian Trevor Roper calls the Aristode and Montesquieu of the 16th century. Bodin, who is credited with authoring the first treatise on inflation, participated in many trials, wrote a volume of "proofs” (Demotnania, 1580), in which he insisted that witches should be burned alive instead of being "mercifully” strangled before being thrown to the flames, that they should be cauterized so that their flesh should rot before death, and that children too be burned.


Bodin was not an isolated case. In this "century of geniuses” — Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Shakespeare, Pascal, Descartes — a century that saw the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, and the development of philosophical and scientific rationalism, witchcraft became one of the favorite subjects of debate for the European intellectual elites. Judges, lawyers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, theologians all became preoccupied with the "problem,” wrote pamphlets and demonologies, agreed that this was the most nefarious crime, and called for its punishment.10

There can be no doubt, then, that the witch-hunt was a major political initiative. To stress this point is not to minimize the role that the Church played in the persecution. The Roman Catholic Church provided the metaphysical and ideological scaffold of the witch-hunt and instigated the persecution of witches as it had previously instigated the persecution of the heretics. Without the Inquisition , the many papal bulls urging the secular authorities to seek out and punish "witches” and, above all, without centuries of the Church’s misogynous campaigns against women, the witch-hunt would not have been possible. But, contrary to the stereotype, the witch-hunt was not just a product of popish fanaticism or of the machinations of the Roman Inquisition. At its peak, the secular courts conducted most of the trials, while in the areas where the Inquisition operated (Italy and Spain) the number of executions remained comparatively low. After the Protestant Reformation, which undermined the Catholic Church’s power, the Inquisition even began to restrain the zeal of the authorities against witches, while intensifying its persecution of Jews (Milano 1963:287-9).11 Moreover, the Inquisition always depended on the cooperation of the state to carry out the executions, as the clergy wanted to be spared the embarrassment of shedding blood. The collaboration between Church and state was even closer in the areas of the Reformation, where the State had become the Church (as in England) or the Church had become the State (as in Geneva, and, to a lesser extent, Scotland). Here one branch of power legislated and executed, and religious ideology openly revealed its political connotations.

The political nature of the witch-hunt is further demonstrated by the fact that both Catholic and Protestant nations, at war against each other in every other respect, joined arms and shared arguments to persecute witches. Thus, it is no exaggeration to claim that the witch-hunt was the first unifying terrain in the politics of the new European nation-states, the first example, after the schism brought about by the Reformation, of a European unification. For, crossing all boundaries, the witch-hunt spread from France and Italy to Germany, Switzerland, England, Scotland, and Sweden.

What fears instigated such concerted policy of genocide? Why was so much violence unleashed? And why were its primary targets women?"


Read the continuation of Federici´s work here »

Witchcraft & “Wicked” Women
May 10th, 2013

Witchcraft has its roots deep in African history and culture, long before the dawn of colonization. With the coming of Colonialism, however, Africa was impacted on political, social, and economic levels, which are linked to the occult, and have led to a culture in which women are further to blame and are oppressed.

Colonization has affected witchcraft in severe ways, which look different across the continent. Apartheid and white dominance have caused extreme poverty and political insecurity to be rampant in black communities. This results in jealousy, and many of society’s problems manifest themselves in the form of witchcraft as a result. Additionally, Christians have come in and have attempted to convert native Africans to their religion, and have been a forceful factor in the eradication of witches, who are often deemed wicked women, a context primarily derived from Western culture.

Witchcraft comes with many societal risks and is used as an underlying form of control over women and their behavior. This furthers the cultural distress seen right now such as economic turmoil, social friction, political distrust, and racial conflicts. It is particularly important that this issue is explored, because the issues of poverty, jealousy, and corruption are not isolated, so neither can be chaos, insecurity, and violence—thus the issue becomes one of global importance.



Witch hunting and witchcraft itself are illegal in most parts of Africa today, as laws with Western ideological undertones are passed. For example, the South African Suppression of Witchcraft Act was passed in 1957, which not only forbade the use and production of witchcraft and traditional South African medicine, but essentially made it illegal to “cry witch”. Witchcraft is a difficult subject to look at, because researches found it so rarely arose spontaneously in social conversation.

In recent years, accusations of witchcraft have risen to unprecedented heights; exactly why this is the case is one of the purposes of our exploration. There is speculation that it is due to unequal economic development of urban areas, reflecting tension between rural villagers and urban elites. Author Adam Ashforth takes this a step further, acknowledging that these kinds of tensions creates jealousy between black community members, and “If people carry jealousy in their heart, the Sowetans say, they can do anything to you”(Ashforth 1200).

Another point of exploration is the issue of women’s suspected involvement in witchcraft. Research done by S. Drucker-Brown claims that these accusations are significant as an attempt to control the behavior of women. Erik Bahre goes so far to suggest that it is a manner of controlling female sexuality in an age when urban settings don’t facilitate Victorian ideas of femininity.

Witchcraft is also a rationale for explaining strained family relations and unfulfilled obligations. Accusing someone of being a witch will essentially cut him or her off from the family and any future inheritance (Daswani, 451). In addition to this, Kirby has found that witchcraft accusations have risen due to several factors:  (1) seasonal rainy season famines, (2) tensions in the house, (3) women’s leisure, (4) men’s frustrations, (5) general insecurity, (6) economic deprivation and food insecurity and (7) availability of an easy solution” (Kirby, 203). It is key to note reason number three “women’s leisure.” This means that women having free time puts people in a suspicious mindset against them, and are thus more likely to be accused of witchcraft.

Though both men and women can be witches, the majority of witch hunts in the past have been aimed against middle-aged female witches. Why exactly women, and specifically older women, find themselves the target so often is also in contention. This is also a topic which we will explore further.


Key Areas of Research:

While the themes above are common in witchcraft, it does not look exactly the same in different parts of the continent. We will look at two cases to highlight these differences, one being witchcraft in South Africa, where apartheid had a significant impact upon witchcraft, and the second being West Africa, looking at Ghana specifically. These examples will show how witchcraft is still a form of control and dominance for men over women even though they have different means of doing so.


Spellcraft: An Examination of Witches of South Africa

Map of South Africa with Soweto
In South Africa, Adam Ashforth and Erik Bahre have researched and discussed the issues of what creates a rise in witchcraft, and, primarily, why women bear the blame. In general, the literature on the subject is drawn out into three different areas of focus—the impacts of Colonialism and apartheid on political, social, and economic tensions, the impact that the climates of political, social, and economic spheres have on the occult, and why women are the ones to blame. Adam Ashforth and Erik Bahre attempt to put all three questions into the same scope.

Ashforth attempts to convey the narrative of witchcraft by beginning with apartheid. Apartheid and white dominance have caused extreme poverty and political insecurity to be rampant in black communities of South Africa. When apartheid was lifted, black neighbors looked around at each other, and they looked hard. Jealousy was induced, and as a result suspicion. It is argued, as will follow, what exactly the impacts of jealousy are in a social sphere—will the jealous neighbor maliciously accuse a wealthier one of advancing through witchcraft, or will the wealthier neighbor accuse the jealous one of malicious witchcraft?

Nothing solidifies such a lack of faith in one’s self as economic instability. Adam Ashforth discusses this briefly in the piece, “Of Secrecy and the Commonplace: Witchcraft and Power in Soweto”. He discusses extensively the impacts of apartheid on the economic climate of South Africa. The very nature of apartheid severely limited the freedom and mobility of black citizens about the country. As one can expect, this limited access to affluent areas kept black citizens poor. It was only in the very late twentieth century that apartheid finally lifted, and so much of the poverty still exists.

This is also discussed with a little more detail in Erik Bahre’s “Witchcraft and the Exchange of Sex, Blood, And Money among Africans in Cape Town, South Africa”, as he discusses the economic tensions which exist post-apartheid. Here, Bahre offers up a reason for the remaining socioeconomic barriers, though hardly detailed. He goes on to insist that since apartheid was so recently lifted, the educational hurdles still exist for black South Africans who were raised in societies with lower quality education than white South Africans (305). This is a pattern which is seen time and time again—even in America, it has been reported that inner cities, which typically have high populations of black and Hispanic minorities, have lower rates of high school completion, or college aspirations, than the comparatively privileged children of suburbia. And so the possibility of this correlation between poverty and poor education is not surprising.

Moving forward, Bahre also discusses the impacts that this economic strife causes in social spheres, and specifically in gender relations. First, he attempts to prove that women are more commonly suspected than men, claiming that the number of women accused in relation to the number of men accused in the past fifteen years has been twenty to one (308). Ashforth doesn’t directly cite this ratio, but he does agree with the assertion that women are more commonly accused of witchcraft than men. Thus begins the discussion of why this is so. Bahre claims that women are willing to be sexually open—but what they want in return is money (309). Whether that is achieved through prostitution, or through what Americans call “gold-digging”, it does not matter. Ultimately, the outcome is that men see women more negatively, as “typically evil” in their lust for affluence (310). This clearly will bear a connection to witchcraft later on.

Second, Bahre argues that men suffer from serious insecurity as a result of their inability to provide adequately for their families (312). This kind of insecurity about ones’ self can lead to a need to prove that one is capable of control and masculine strength. Bahre argues that this, coupled with general negativity towards women, manifests itself primarily in domestic and sexual violence (315). This kind of gender tension in a social sphere is an obvious cultural stressor.

Ashforth elaborates further on gender tensions which may perhaps lead to the reason behind the negative regard of women. He argues that the sexual freedom and independence of women in a traditionally patriarchal culture leads to the emasculation of black South African men. He says, “Most families in Soweto are headed by women, thus compounding the anxieties of masculinity and the formation of male sexual identities amongst families with female ‘breadwinners’ in a society stressing the norms of male dominance” (1209). He continues, saying that it is also the sexual freedom allowed to urban women that men find to be particularly threatening, especially “in places, like Soweto, where good women are not supposed to have sexual desires, while males are supposed to be rampant”(1209). This seems to be agreed upon by the two authors, who agree that it is modern ideas of femininity which terrify and threaten men, causing social insecurity and mistrust between the genders.

Let us consider how the idea of witchcraft is culminated from all of the above. Adam Ashforth is convinced that jealousy is what creates witchcraft. He says, “The most commonly cited source of the hatred driving the desire to inflict harm through witchcraft is jealousy. If people carry jealousy in their heart, Sowetans say, they become your enemy, and they can do anything to you” (1200). Money and freedom and power are what drive us. If one neighbor has more than another, especially in a social warzone like South Africa, it causes jealousy. Moreover, though white South Africans and Colonists are the ones who instilled the suffering of apartheid, they do not bear the worst of it. Ashforth has an explanation for this as well. He says that, “In many ways jealousy is the flip side of the coin that is egalitarianism. We rarely feel jealous of a king but endlessly envy courtiers of a similar rank” (1201). And so it is that we are more likely to attack and accuse our peers.


The Wicked Witch of the West: Witchcraft and Witches in Ghana

Map of the Regions of Ghana
The experience of researchers is that witchcraft in Ghana is not easy to study; this is because it so rarely arises in casual, commonplace conversation among Ghanaians, and that “to mention witchcraft [is] to admit an interest” (Drucker-Brown, 533).

According to N. Gray, the imposition of laws regarding witchcraft in Ghana have made a decisive contribution to the eventual transformation of witch cleansing (formerly execution, slavery, medicinal cleansing, and ostracizing) from a “coercive, quasi-judicial process driven by accusation into a voluntary, therapeutic practice centered on confession” (Gray, 341). This is due in thanks to the Pentecostal Church.

Through colonization, Europe brought Christianity to Africa. In Ghana specifically, this came in the form of the Pentecostal Church. Daswani describes the Pentecostal Church as a transformative agent that emerges through relationships. The missionary process is said to be “an ongoing process that is never complete and through which Pentecostals are constantly negotiating old and new worlds” (Daswani, 444).

The Pentecostal Church has played two roles in Ghana in regards to controlling witchcraft. On one hand, it offered a chance at redemption of witches, and on the other hand, it targeted witches in sometimes rather violent manners. In the first instance, converting to Christianity was a way out for witches who were experiencing familial tensions and living in poor conditions as some of the lowest members of society. Offering salvation, the Pentecostal missionaries would teach people how to pray effectively, preach in public, and develop spirituality. The Holy Spirit would be evoked and witches could be healed. For some, the church also offered new chances at authority and power, if the individual was suited for it. “The main agenda of this sort of Pentecostalization is deliverance, which is based on the fear of spirit forces, especially witchcraft” (Onyinah 2009, 110).

On the other side of this, we see the church as an instrument against witchcraft.  Meyers’ research shows that these evil actors are agents of the Devil. Before, witches were just another role in society, still pretty low and still evil, but now they have the Christian attribute of being hell-ish. The missionaries assumed the Devil was confronting them through the ‘heathen religion’ in general and the activities of the ‘fetish priests’ in particular. They called forth a fight against witchcraft. Street sermons were held, and they preached the dangers of the Devil (Meyer, 105). Ultimately, by introducing this personalized devil and the association of the gods with demons, “the missionaries strengthened the belief in witchcraft and sorcery. However, they failed to provide for the holistic needs of the people, especially those of healing, exorcism and protection” (Onyinah 2004, 333).

The king, chiefs, and powerful household heads are the ones who are attributed with the ability to see witches, and thus it is their responsibility to defend their domain from attack. Drucker-Brown finds that witches attack at night, and invisibly wobri (“to chew and swallow”) the bodies of their victims, which typically causes lingering illnesses and deaths. It is commonly believed that witches conduct their deeds in spirit form while her physical body sleeps. Sometimes this can appear as a ball of fire (Adinkrah 2004, 335). A victim, however, will often see the witch or witches attacking. This can lead to an accusation being made by a victim during an illness. In some cases, it seems that a name mentioned by a sick person in a feverish state can also be taken as an accusation. Also, children descending from a matrilineage of witches are often thought to inherit tendencies toward witchcraft (Adinkrah 2011, 744).

In the past, post-mortem investigations occurred to reveal the witchcraft substance, known as soo, in a person’s body. Soo is described as a cotton-like residue in the intestinal tract. In addition to this, witchcraft is said to be “inherited from one’s mother and the uterine kin of a convicted witch are always suspect” (Drucker-Brown, 533). This shows that it is inherently (partially literally) a female trait. It should be noted that locals believe that witchcraft is an active practice and that the kin of a witch need not be witches, just suspect.

Additionally, witchcraft can be transmuted through medicines. An active witch could feed an innocent person a witchcraft substance, or it could happen to someone being recruited as a novice. The medicine will be compelled to act as a witch, which could include such actions as being forced to steal the flesh from a victim. This flesh is used to feed senior witches in a communal feast. As such, sudden weight loss is usually considered an effect of a witch attack. Once eaten, human flesh becomes an addiction, which leads to the deliberate consumption of medicine. Variations of the type of attack depend on the type of medicines consumed (Drucker-Brown, 539).

These medicines incorporate substances that are both curative as well as poisonous, and substances that operate both mechanically within the body and metaphysically. Medicine is not only used by witches, but also as a defense against witchcraft (Drucker-Brown, 540).

Use of medicine is very different for males and females. In both cases, a close kinsperson will be the most likely target. Females are most often accused of killing their own infants, killing a co-wife’s child, or attacking a husband or brother-in-law. Men, however, are usually accused of bewitching their rivals (Drucker-Brown, 540).

The primary punishment for a convicted witch is execution. This is not the only option, however. Convicted witches are sometimes sent to the nearby market town, where they are allowed to live segregated from the community but are free to go about the town. They are often sent here if their witchcraft cannot be controlled by the medicines available to ordinary household heads or chiefs, causing further shame. Witch settlements like this are known as pwaanyankura-foango,which literally means ‘old ladies’ section’.  The witches are allowed to live here because the townsfolk are protected with special medicine (Kirby, 199).

This segregation is still a form of punishment, however. The women have had to leave their families and their homes, and are basically branded with a scarlet letter leaving them degraded by their banishment. As the name of the section indicates, many of the women are indeed elderly and face a shortage of food as well as poor living conditions. Most deny that they are witches, but some say that they “must be witches if everyone says they are” (Drucker-Brown, 535). Regardless, being ostracized in the witch settlement if far preferable to them than death.

Moreover, some witches are never formally convicted, but through gossip they still experience many of the social implications. Sometimes even, just for personal advances people will start to gossip about this, which leads to many women falsely being accused. Women, especially those who are older, are considered easy targets in this society (Geest, 448). This is especially true for women whose behavior or outward demeanor is considered eccentric: for example “those who mutter to themselves or are regarded as inquisitive, meddlesome, garrulous, and cantankerous” (Adinkrah 2004, 336).

The following video illustrates many of these issues, specifically for the woman of Gambaga (Northern Ghana). This is a clip from the documentary film by Yaba Badoe called “The Witches of Gambaga.” It is a clear example of the way accusations are based on jealousy and suspicion, and that there are very dire consequences for these women.

The Witches of Gambaga



Though the geographic location of both areas is different, the general pattern that researches reveal to us is strikingly similar. In both areas, we see tensions brought on by Western theology and ideology.

In South Africa, this tension is brought on in the form of the imposition and then relief of apartheid. As Ashforth and Bahre have expressed, the economic barriers brought on by this form of severe segregation have remained racially charged into the modern day, almost two decades after it was lifted. It is the jealousy inspired within the black communities of South Africa that Ashforth blames for the spike in witchcraft accusations in those areas.

Similarly, it is undeniable that Christianity was brought to Ghana by Western colonists. This Pentecostalism has stigmatized witchcraft, apparently supporting violent means of dealing with the issue of witchcraft. While apartheid only wrought disastrous impacts, however, Pentecostalism also provides alternative ways of “cleansing” or “saving” the accused, with methods which involve significantly less violence.

In both cases, women seem to be targeted. In the case of South Africa, while men can be and have been accused of witchcraft, both Bahre and Ashforth agree that it is primarily the women who find themselves at the violent end of the equation. In Ghana, the association between femininity and witchcraft, which is most powerfully exemplified through the language and through the theory that witches tend to receive their powers from their matriarchal line, exposes a bias against women. It becomes undoubtable within this context that women are seen to be the primary possessors of supernatural abilities, and are thus somehow viewed as intrinsically evil.

The reasons for why are varied, but both regions seem to accuse women of witchcraft based on their social behavior. In South Africa, it is sexually free and financially ambitious women who are seen to be the most evil by the society in which they live. This is potentially because the urban settings of South Africa and the general economic strife in black communities no longer support the Victorian ideals of femininity which deal with purity, and the reliance of South African women upon the men of their family (ideally the husbands). In the urban settings, South African women can no longer rely on the economic wealth of men, who, if willing to be married and settle down, rarely provide enough wealth to care for the family to the wife’s standards. In Ghana, witchcraft deals with the social view of women in relation due to the household; specifically, the happiness of the men of the household (which seems to be regarded as the responsibility of the women of the household), the relations between members of the family, and the amount of time a woman may have for leisurely activities. This last note brings to mind the proverb, “Idle hands do the Devil’s work”, and undoubtedly such sentiment is at play here.

The final tie between the two cases is the issue of poverty, social difference, and general insecurity. Both regions show a spike in witchcraft when faced with the insecurity of living under stressful and poor conditions. Undoubtedly, this places instability at the top of the chain when it comes to reasons why witchcraft and violence are so prevalent.




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